This past week has been nothing short of a whirlwind. After being TDY for two weeks, my husband took some time off to tear the house apart and repaint. It has been seven long years since we last painted the walls and, believe me, this venture has been desperately needed. Now, here I sit, amid freshly painted walls and I could not possibly be happier. The house feels alive, vibrant, new, and welcoming. Suddenly, I no longer feel so shut in and trapped anymore, bringing a new life to my bones.
Since being diagnosed with NET cancer and quitting my job, this house has felt like a prison cell. It was dark, dreary, and depressing. The taupe walls were beginning to close in around me making it so hard to spend day after tedious day without feeling trapped. I think now I can relate to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s character in her essay, The Yellow Wallpaper. Taking my convalesce within these dark walls has not been easy on my mental health. There has been something about the house that has weighted heavily on my spirit, making it difficult to recover; sitting here I can feel the energy being sapped from me. I can lament with Gilman’s character as she writes:
“That spoils my ghostliness, I am afraid, but I don’t care—there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.
I even said so to John one moonlight evening, but he said what I felt was a DRAUGHT, and shut the window.
I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I’m sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition” (1685).
There was a time when I found solace and comfort within these walls. It felt homey, peaceful, and calming after long days homeschooling or, after I started teaching, a sanctuary from the everyday chaos of the classroom. I know I never used to be sensitive to its darker side; however, after getting sick, these taupe walls no longer provided comfort and security. In fact, the color provoked me to tears on many an occasion.
After having surgery and being confined to the couch for almost a month, the walls began to take on an even more sinister appearance. What makes it even worse is that we live in an interior townhouse with windows in the front and back, nothing on the sides to allow for more light. In the mornings, the sun shines into the dining room at the front of the house, making it cheery and delightful. The walls of the dining room are a festive purple that just makes my heart sing, but, after having my abdomen ripped apart to remove the cancer, sitting for long periods in a dining room chair was incredibly taxing, making it impossible to enjoy the bright sunlight. Instead, I found myself trapped in the darker part of the house with minimal sunlight and only the television for company. In many ways I felt like Gilman’s character as she contemplated the walls of her bedroom prison:
“The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight” (1685).
Those taupe walls were not only faded with age, but covered in the dirt that had accumulated over the years. Under our breakfast bar showed dirt from the feet that had been propped up against it. The walls around the sofa had some strange stain splashed across its surface. Everywhere I looked the walls screamed back at me with the carelessness of the busy life that had once been lived within these walls and now, that I had time, revealed their ugliness to me. To be completely honest, the walls were a reminder of everything that I had lost to cancer and everything that I was longing desperately to gain back. The constant reminder was heartbreaking and detrimental to a smooth recovery.
I know that I must sound a bit mad, but these old walls were seriously a hinderance to my recovery. It is enough of a mental blow to be diagnosed with cancer, even more of a mental blow to find out that an invasive surgery is required to remove this insidious enemy, but even more so to be trapped within dark walls that scream obscenities from every conceivable angle. The stains on the wall echo Gilman’s words back to me:
“This paper looks to me as if it KNEW what a vicious influence it had!
There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down” (1687).
Each stain developed a voice of its own, screaming at me from their perch on the wall. As I lay on the couch with nothing on television to hold my interest, the stains would glare at me, building my desire to escape from the house, but, even more disillusioning, creating within me a depression that I was finding it harder and harder to stay off. The walls were gaining a life of their own that mocked me from every vantage point. Just looking at the walls with their aged stains from my nest on the couch I would:
“…get positively angry with the impertinence of it and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd, unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where two breadths didn’t match, and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other” (Gilman 1687).
When I was busy with life, kids, work, and all that went with a hectic lifestyle, I never noticed the walls or the story they had to tell. Now that I had become a captive audience:
“I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store” (Gilman 1687).
As I think on it now, it is amazing how much power over my wellbeing those silly stained walls had on me. So much power, in fact, that I am sure the emotional distress hindered my recovery as depression began to set in. I desperately wanted to run screaming from the house; however, instead of running, I would find myself breaking down into unexplainable tears. Depression was becoming a visitor who was settling in for the long haul.
I thank God that I have a husband who recognized the warning signs and was willing to jump in and do what was necessary to help me recover my senses and feel well again. He took the time off from his incredibly demanding job to spend an entire week painting the house a bright and lively color that reflects what little light we are able to get in through the rear windows of the house to help cheer me out of this depression. The house now is so bright and cheery and all the stains of my old life are gone. It is a new start for a new a life and I can feel my mental state changing for the positive. Thankfully, my life will not end in the insanity that Gilman’s character experiences between the inadequate therapy for her depression and her husband’s aloofness to her needs. I have been blessed with wonderful medical care and a husband who is keen to the warning signs of depression. NET cancer is not the end of my life, but, instead, it marks an opportunity to explore avenues I would not have necessarily chosen had I still been healthy. Life is opening new doors and this fresh, new paint is only the beginning.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter Seventh Edition. Nina Baym Ed. New York: Norton. 1684-1695. 2008. Print.